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May 17, 2017

What the evidence says

A recurring theme across a number of policy discussions and debates – particularly planning, community empowerment and local governance – surrounds the potential role that local neighbourhood planning could play. In England the Localism Act 2011 created the opportunity for communities to draw up and adopt neighbourhood plans. With over 2000 communities choosing to pursue this option, there’s sufficient evidence on the ground to begin to draw some conclusions. A new book, ‘Localism and Neighbourhood Planning: power to the people’ does just that. 


Quintin Bradley

Is neighbourhood planning enabling a progressive localism, or embedding inequality? Dr Quintin Bradley, co-author of the first overview of neighbourhood plans, assesses their impact

With over 2000 neighbourhood plans underway, and more than 300 already part of the statutory planning framework, it is a good time to assess the impact of neighbourhood planning, and to see what practical differences it has made.

A new book ‘Localism and Neighbourhood Planning: power to the people’ by Sue Brownill and Quintin Bradley does exactly that. The first overview of neighbourhood planning since its launch in the 2011 localism act, the book asks what genuine power, if any, has been transferred to local people, and what has really changed on the ground.

The book reviews the impact of neighbourhood planning across four themes – whether it has devolved ‘power to the people’; what impact it has had on planning practice; what it means for state and citizen relations more broadly; and finally, how might it bring progressive change now and in the future.

Power to the people

Neighbourhood planning has given statutory planning powers to urban community groups and rural parishes and this has brought about some tangible change. For the first time there is space for citizens’ control in planning. Community-leadership, innovative public engagement and direct democracy are now part of the formal process of state decision making over land use and development.

In rural areas this has given a voice to the sense of belonging and stewardship felt by local communities, like St. Ives, in Cornwall, whose neighbourhood plan put a stop to the unregulated growth of second homes and took back some control over inflationary housing market. This passion for place explains why the turnout in a rural neighbourhood plan referendum can be as high as 71%, and why voter turnout on average compares favourably with municipal elections. The situation in urban areas is quite different, however, and points to continuing inequalities in access to plan-making.

It takes around four years of volunteer time and commitment to write a neighbourhood plan. Getting your head around planning policy and legislation is not easy and this partly explains why the majority of neighbourhood plans are still coming from the more affluent areas with better access to skills and resources. The fact that a healthy 23% of plans are in the least affluent areas is largely because some local authorities, like Leeds, with its 35 neighbourhood plans in one city, have taken a strategic approach to targeting support to ensure greater equality. Perhaps the thing that makes the real difference, however, is what practical benefits neighbourhood planning can bring.

Making a difference on the ground

In our book we argue that neighbourhood plans are taking a distinctive approach to issues of housing supply and asserting a renewed social purpose for planning. Given the task of reconciling economic growth with environmental and social sustainability, neighbourhood plans have prioritised the need to foster place identity, enhance green space and uphold local distinctiveness. They appear to be promoting a different model of housebuilding, supporting affordable, cooperative and self-build housing on brown field and infill sites. Lauded by government for boosting growth, they welcome development where it helps build community.

This approach has not been without controversy. Developers appear to have an inexhaustible appetite for legal action against neighbourhood plans, and neighbourhood planners have been forthright on their contempt for the speculative model of the volume housebuilders. A national planning framework that is determinedly pro-growth tightly constrains what it is possible for neighbourhoods to achieve. The expansion of permitted development rights means they are powerless to regulate office residential conversions or change of use in retail so many big issues are outside their control. Despite this, neighbourhood plans have made innovative use of land use policy to pursue regeneration, and foster employment and training. Neighbourhood forums in inner city areas have helped establish a new tier of local governance and this has sparked a fresh wave of community action, bringing new and powerful connections to play on local issues.

Citizens, localism and governance

Neighbourhood planning enjoys broad political support and the recent Housing White Paper, and before that, the Housing & Planning Act demonstrated clearly that government sees the locality, or neighbourhood, as key to achieving its aims. This provides citizens with a unique opportunity to work new spaces of power and has brought neighbourhood planners powerful friends. It complicates relations with local authorities who have a duty to support this widening of political engagement while struggling to find further resources. It also means that citizens are now expected to do the work of professionals and acquire technical proficiency in planning while still toiling at the lowest level of a governance hierarchy.

Most neighbourhood plans get substantially amended at formal examination – sometimes changed to the extent that the community no longer recognises them as their own work. The recent increase in neighbourhood plans failing examination, on top of a number of legal challenges on some of the more technical aspects of plan-making, emphasises the heavy burden that falls on communities that dare to explore the uncertain opportunities of localism.

Is a progressive localism emerging?

Neighbourhood planning has made planning more democratic and renewed its social purpose. The uneven geography of its take-up and its barriers to participation can in no way detract from this advancement.  The limitations on what communities can achieve are formidable. The scope of neighbourhood planning is undermined by continuing austerity, constrained by deregulation and out-gunned by a speculative land market.

Still there is no sign that neighbourhood planning has run out of steam or that communities have given up hope. Instead there is a pragmatic enthusiasm. The statutory recognition that plan-making confers on communities is highly prized. Neighbourhood planning bestows a legal identity on an activist citizenry and their community action.

One thing is clear: neighbourhood planning has changed the institutional architecture of planning and unleashed a new and powerful force in the government of the local.

•             ‘Localism and neighbourhood planning: power to the people’ is edited by Sue Brownill and Quintin Bradley and published by Policy Press, price £21.59.